Poorly executed implementation of a new computer record-keeping system has left San Francisco Unified School District officials trying to decide whether to scrap the entire system, which already cost the district nearly $5 million, or spend $1.7 million more to pay the software provider, PeopleSoft, to bring it up to speed.

Before making the decision, however, district officials plan to spend an additional $400,000 for a four-month study of the problem. “Our consultant told us that we didn’t need to spend the $1.7 million, but that we would have to spend another $400,000 to $800,000 to get to the point where we can make a recommendation to abandon the system or not,” board member Jill Wynns told the San Francisco Examiner. “The thought of abandoning this now is horrifying.” San Francisco purchased the PeopleSoft system for $2 million in 1996. The software, which was supposed to run all the district’s records, from payroll to personnel to student information, was intended to replace its old accounting system and make the district year 2000-compliant. Since 1996, the district has spent another $3 million paying consultants to figure out why the software has not worked correctly.

In March, the district hired technology adviser Sandy Rosen to help sort out its problems. After interviewing a number of district employees and conducting an in-depth analysis of the situation, Rosen outlined three options: The district could hire a project manager to build a plan to fix the PeopleSoft system and strictly enforce its proper use; it could let another district with a proven track record run San Francisco’s accounts; or it could give up and buy new software.

Both Rosen and PeopleSoft public relations manager Lisa Sion attributed the district’s problems to inexperienced staff and a lack of leadership. “The old system did not work very well, but people were used to it,” Sion said. “After PeopleSoft was installed, there was no internal driver to enforce the use of the new software. Bugs were created … as a result of people trying to work their way around the system. … There was no manager saying, ‘You have to use this system, and here’s how.'” Sion said the problem was not PeopleSoft’s fault and that the company has done what it could to help.

“We recommend that if someone buys PeopleSoft software, they also hire our consulting team to do their training,” she said. “You can buy a plane from Boeing, but if you don’t train the pilot how to fly the plane, it’s going to crash. That is not Boeing’s fault. Without proper implementation, [software programs] won’t do you any good.” But in his report to the San Francisco district Aug. 28, Rosen said the “drop and run” nature of many software companies compounded the problem, the Examiner reported. PeopleSoft and others sell and install complex programs but then charge extra to train the software’s users, he said. Rosen could not be reached for comment by eSchool News.

According to Sion, once PeopleSoft was contacted about the problem, it sent consultants to craft a plan on how best to rectify the situation. That plan was presented Aug. 1 and consisted of two parts. First, PeopleSoft would charge $700,000 for 13 weeks of consulting; second, it would charge $1.7 million to ensure functionality. “The unfortunate result is that PeopleSoft has been made to look bad in this situation when, in fact, we have come in to save the day—and on our dime,” Sion said. “PeopleSoft has already donated roughly $120,000 worth of consulting to help the district draw up a comprehensive business plan.” In a letter to the Examiner, PeopleSoft Vice President Christopher Feeley wrote, “PeopleSoft software—like all enterprise software, whether from PeopleSoft or our competitors—cannot be used efficiently unless it is installed and run correctly.”

He added, “Several critical factors determine if software installation will be completed on time and on budget and if operational efficiencies ultimately will be realized. Foremost are strong internal project management and a commitment on the part of the customer’s management to devote the resources necessary to get the software up and running.”

District Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, who came to San Francisco from District of Columbia Public Schools earlier this year, declined several requests for an interview.

San Francisco Unified School District http://www.sfusd.k12.ca.us

PeopleSoft http://www.peoplesoft.com

San Francisco Examiner http://www.sfgate.com